Robert Bennett: Ryan-Murray deal signals hope for a broken Congress

Published: Monday, Dec. 23 2013 1:06 p.m. MST

The passage of the Ryan-Murray budget by a large bipartisan margin in both houses of Congress is good news.

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The passage of the Ryan-Murray budget by a large bipartisan margin in both houses of Congress is good news. It represents a welcome relief from the bitterly partisan fights of a few months ago and makes it clear that there will be no government shutdown in 2014. However, there will be even better news if it also moves Congress towards a return to the “regular order” way of doing business.

“Regular order” means funding the government through specific appropriations bills rather than relying on the use of sweeping, government-wide “continuing resolutions,” called CRs. These resolutions say, in effect, “We haven’t been able to pass a normal appropriations bill but the Executive Branch can continue to spend money anyway, at a certain specified level, until a certain date.” When the date comes, and there is still no appropriations bill, recent Congresses have simply passed a new CR, setting a new date. A legislative vehicle that was designed to be used only when the normal process is temporarily delayed has become the normal process. Entire fiscal years have been funded by CRs.

Conservatives like CRs when the spending levels in them are low; liberals like them when the spending levels in them are high. Both ignore the negative impact they have had on the governing process.

Under regular order, Congress passes 12 appropriations bills, each drafted by a relevant subcommittee, after hearings have been held in which Cabinet officers and other senior officials of the executive branch supply the subcommittees with detailed information about their actions and intentions. Members of Congress can question what has been done in the past and give direction with respect to what should be done in the future. The process is an annual reminder to the executive branch that the Constitution gives Congress full control over the money that funds agencies’ salaries and pays their bills. It guarantees that a member of Congress can get his phone call returned when he calls a Cabinet office.

Funding the government through CRs suggests to the agencies that such calls needn’t be returned. When a Congressional resolution says, “You can continue to spend as you have been doing until you hear from us,” the agencies interpret it as meaning, “You can do as you please.” Congressional input is ignored. That’s been particularly true in the Obama administration, but I believe it would have been true in previous administrations as well if they, too, had been funded primarily by CRs.

Bureaucracies enjoy operating without legislative oversight. Inertia is not just a law of physics; it applies to politics as well. Like a body in motion, a bureaucracy in motion tends to stay in motion, in the same direction, until it is acted upon by an outside force. The Constitution gives Congress the power and the responsibility to be that outside force but, by failing to pass regular appropriation bills, recent Congresses have ceded that power to the executive branch. That needs to stop if Congress is going to make the permanent government — those who hold tenured positions while presidents and cabinet officers come and go — responsive to the elected one.

We want to have a government that is a better steward of our tax dollars That means one that focuses as carefully on the “how” as it does on the “how much” of federal spending. I’m hoping that the large margins by which the Ryan-Murray budget was passed are a signal that members of Congress might be willing to start doing that again, through regular order, because, after all, that’s the job the Founders gave them.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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